Aphraates the Wise

Pope Benedict XVI weekly catechesis.

General Audience Wednesday, November 21, 2007

During his general audience on Nov. 21, Pope Benedict XVI continued his series of teachings on the early Fathers of the Church. He shared his reflections on Aphraates, an important figure of fourth-century Syriac Christianity.

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today, as we continue our journey into the world of the Fathers of the Church, I would like to be your guide into an area of the universe of faith that is little known, namely, those territories where the churches of the Semitic languages flourished, churches that had not yet felt the influence of Greek thought.

These churches developed during the fourth century throughout the Near East in an area that extended from the Holy Land to Lebanon and into Mesopotamia. During that century, which was a period when the Church and literature were developing, the phenomena of asceticism and monasticism were growing there, marked by some indigenous characteristics and untouched by the influence of Egyptian monasticism.

Therefore, communities in Syria in the fourth century were representative of the Semitic world from which the Bible itself evolved, and were an expression of a Christianity whose theological formulation had not yet come into contact with other cultural currents but lived according to its own forms of thought. These were churches where asceticism in its various eremitic forms (hermits who lived in the desert and in caves as well as stylites and those who led a reclusive lifestyle), along with monasticism in the form of community life, played a vital and important role in the development of theological and spiritual thought.

I would like to introduce this world through Aphraates, who was also known as “the sage,” one of the most important and, at the same time, one of the most enigmatic figures of fourth-century Syriac Christianity. He lived in the first half of the fourth century and was a native of the region around Nineveh and Mosul in what is today Iraq. We have little information about his life. He maintained a close relationship with ascetic and monastic circles within the Syriac Church and reflects upon them in some of his works, thereby providing us with some information on them.

According to some sources, he was once in charge of a monastery and later ordained a bishop.

He wrote 23 speeches known as Expositions or Demonstrations, in which he discusses various topics concerning Christian life, such as faith, love, fasting, humility, prayer and the ascetic life, as well as the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and between the Old and New Testaments. He wrote in a simple style, using short sentences and contrasting parallelisms. Nonetheless, he was successful in weaving together a coherent and well-reasoned argument in the various questions that he confronted.

Aphraates came from a church community that was located on the border between Judaism and Christianity. The community was very closely associated with the mother church of Jerusalem, and its bishops were traditionally chosen among what were called “relatives” of James, “the Lord’s brother” (see Mark 6:3). Thus, they were people who shared a bond both by blood and by faith with the church of Jerusalem.

Aphraates spoke Syriac, a Semitic language like the Hebrew of the Old Testament and like the Aramaic that Jesus himself spoke.

The ecclesial community in which Aphraates lived sought to remain faithful to the Judeo-Christian tradition of which it felt itself to be a product. Therefore, it maintained a close relationship with the Jewish world and its sacred books.

It is significant that Aphraates describes himself as a “disciple of sacred Scripture,” of both the Old and New Testaments (see Exposition 22:26), which he considered his sole source of inspiration and to which he had such abundant recourse that he made it the center of his thought.

The arguments that Aphraates develops in his Expositions are varied. True to his Syriac tradition, he often presents the salvation wrought by Christ as a healing; consequently, he presents Christ himself as a doctor. Sin, on the other hand, is seen as a wound that only penance can heal: “A man that has been injured in battle,” Aphraates says, “is not ashamed to entrust himself to the hands of a wise doctor ...; likewise, a person who has been injured by Satan should not be ashamed to admit his fault and distance himself from it, asking for the medicine of penance” (see Exposition 7:3).

Another important aspect of Aphraates’ work is his teaching on prayer, particularly on Christ as the master of prayer. Christians pray following Jesus’ teaching and example on prayer: “Our Savior taught us to pray saying, ‘Pray in secret to the One who is hidden but who sees everything.’ Elsewhere he says, ‘Enter into your room and pray to your Father in secret, and the Father who sees this will reward you’ (Matthew 6:6). … Our Savior wants to show you that God knows the desires and thoughts of your heart” (see Exposition 4:10).

For Aphraates, the life of a Christian is focused on imitating Christ, taking up his yoke, and following him on the path of the Gospel.

Humility is a virtue that is especially appropriate for a disciple of Christ. It is not merely some secondary aspect of a Christian’s spiritual life. By nature man is a humble creature and it is God who exalts him with his own glory. Humility, Aphraates observes, is not a negative value: “If a man is rooted in the earth, his fruits will ascend to the Lord of greatness” (see Exposition 9:14).

By remaining humble, even amidst their earthly surroundings, Christians can establish a relationship with the Lord: “The humble man is humble, but his heart rises to the uppermost heights. The eyes of his face observe the earth, but the eyes of his mind observe the highest summit” (see Exposition 9:2).

Aphraates’ vision of man and his physical reality is very positive one. The human body, following the example of Christ who is humble, is called to beauty, joy and light: “God is attracted to the man who loves, and it is fitting to love humility and to remain humble. Humble people are simple, patient, loving, honest, righteous, experts in what is good, prudent, serene, wise, calm, peaceful, merciful, ready to turn back to God, benevolent, profound, thoughtful, beautiful and attractive” (see Exposition 9:14).

Aphraates often presents the Christian life in its clearly ascetic and spiritual dimensions: Faith is the foundation that makes man a temple where Christ himself dwells. Therefore, faith makes sincere charity possible, which is expressed in love for God and for one’s neighbor.

Fasting is yet another key concept in Aphraates’ teaching, which he interprets in its widest sense. He speaks about fasting from food as a practice that is necessary in order to be charitable and pure; fasting in the form of self-discipline as a means of attaining holiness; as well as fasting from vain and loathsome words, fasting from anger, fasting from owning goods in order to carry out ministry, and fasting from sleep in order to pray.

Dear brothers and sisters, in conclusion, let us return once again to Aphraates’ teaching on prayer. According to this ancient “sage,” prayer is achieved when Christ dwells in the heart of Christians, inviting them to a commitment of charity toward their neighbor that is consistent. He wrote the following:

“Give relief to those in distress, visit the ailing. Be solicitous to the poor: This is prayer.
Prayer is good, and its works are beautiful.
Prayer is accepted when it gives relief to your neighbor. Prayer is heard when it includes the forgiveness of sins. Prayer is strong when it is full of God’s strength” (see Exposition 4:14-16).

With these words Aphraates invites us to join in a prayer that becomes Christian life, a life that comes to fruition, a life that is infused by faith, by openness to God and by the love for one’s neighbor.

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